Camogie isn’t what it used to be for Cork’s Gemma O’Connor, but, then again, neither is life. In two weeks’ time, the eight-time All-Star winner will line out in her 11th All-Ireland final, with Galway waiting in the wings.
On Sunday, September 13, the Army Corporal will enter the dressing room in Croke Park and veer toward the third locker on the left. To her right will sit goalkeeper Aoife Murray. It’s not superstition, “just automatic” says O’Connor, who’s put down one of her toughest seasons yet in 13 years playing.
“From a personal point of view, it’s been the hardest, given my mam is undergoing treatment for cancer, so some days you’re not up for going training, but Paudie’s (Murray) been so good. I suppose camogie was always my priority, but priorities change.
“But, you need an escape too and I wouldn’t be playing only for mam, so it’s been a tough year and mentally tasking,” admits O’Connor, whose love of the sport stemmed from her mother Geraldine, a former Glen player.
“I suppose I’m coming up to an age too where I’m at the tail-end of my career and you want to finish on a high. I don’t want to be playing for the sake of it and I’ve my own standards to reach. I don’t want to be plodding along and become that player who’s falling by the wayside. I suppose it’s realising when that’s going to be. Retirement might this year or next, but either way I know it’ll be sooner rather than later,” admits the 30-year-old St Finbarr’s star.
There’s a mental toughness to O’Connor, thanks in no part to serving 11 years in the Army. From sleep deprivation on tactical exercises on the rugged terrain of the Galtee Mountains, to completing 10km marches carrying 14lbs of battle gear on her back in just an hour, O’Connor’s got that something special that puts her in the higher echelons with the legends of the game.
“Because of the army, you know what your capabilities are, and that you can push yourself to the limit. That gives you bit of an advantage playing sport in terms of training and knowing what it takes to win.”
O’Connor is renowned for her passion on the pitch, instilled by watching the likes of Sandy Fitzgibbon, Linda Mellerick, Vivienne Harris and Fiona O’Driscoll as a teenager. But, playing for Cork means much more to her than just putting on the red jersey.
“Of course it’s an honour to play for Cork and everyone has their own motivation, but family for me is always important. When I put on the jersey, I play with passion because I know I’m representing them. I do it for my mam and dad (Donal), my brother (Glen) and my relations because they’ve supported me down through the years.”
TEAM BONDING AND TACTICS
A overnight stay on Spike Island this year helped unite that passion and hunger in the team that O’Connor speaks about. Twice this year they’ve lost to Galway, but the improvement since has O’Connor believing this side has what it takes, both tactically and mentally, to retain their title.
“The comparison of where we were at the start of the year and where we are now is huge. The younger players have proven they’re willing to put in the work. It’s not about who’s the fastest or the strongest, it’s just about getting that genuine 100% out of everyone.
“As regards tactics, camogie’s not about going out 15 on 15 any more. Tactics have changed how the game is played and it took a while to adapt to that, but we’ve all bought into the fact that we have to execute the same plan. It’s going to be very close with Galway, but we’re ready for it,” added O’Connor, who tomorrow will launch the WGPA’s sponsorship alignment with Sketchers.